Burrowing Owls: Small, Open-Country Predators

By Dave Hanks

Driving along sagebrush country roads in the morning hours, you might be lucky enough to spot a medium sized brown bundle of feathers with big imposing eyes. This is especially true if there happens to be fence posts lining the roadside. You would be witnessing a Burrowing Owl – an animal of the open sagebrush plateau and grasslands.

Burrowing Owls usually don’t burrow, although the male might modify a hole by scraping with his talons or on rare occasions dig one. They use abandoned ground squirrel, prairiedog, or other previously dug burrows. They will stand by the entrance but are quick to enter the security of the burrow when alarmed. If you wait, they will sneak back to the entrance to take a peek at their surroundings.

This owl stands 9 inches tall, has long legs, and big yellow eyes. It is a diurnal owl but will hunt when the moon is out. It kills by burying its talons in the victim’s back and then pecking vigorously at its neck. It will eat mice, voles, baby ground squirrels and rabbits, but rarely takes other birds. It does consume a large amount of insects such as grasshoppers and large beetles.

Both parents incubate the eggs (6 to 11) for a month and will bring food to the brood for 6 to 8 weeks. As the babies get larger, they will stand by the burrow’s mouth. A “cack-cack-cack-cack” alarm call by a parent on a nearby perch will send them scurrying back into the hole. The young are very vulnerable to predation and will hiss, like a snake, when threatened. The parents are also very intolerant of other species coming close to their burrow.

We have encountered this species sitting on fence posts when we drive the Yale road toward Heglar Canyon, or on the road to Milner by BLM land. This bird is migratory and we have observed them in the Imperial Valley of California in the winter. They seem to be abundant along the canals and alfalfa fields in the farming area south of the Salton Sea.

(On the alert on the edge of a hay field)